My vision cleared suddenly, and I could clearly see the deep furrows fording her forehead.
I had just finished daubing my hair with Brylcream to conceal the barren patches, and the phone rang. It must be my friend who was accompanying me to the concert that evening.
I deferred the final inspection and rushed to the living room where the phone bellowed incessantly like an infant yelling for attention.
I tripped over a shoe on my way and had to race lest the other party decide to hang up. A curse was about to escape my lips as I picked up the phone,
“Hello” I shouted. I was about to release the curse lurking behind my lips as I heard someone at the other end asking me to confirm my number. The curse retraced its steps and died somewhere in my mind unceremoniously.
The man at the other end did not sound like an operator; his speech had eloquence and a hint of hostility.
“Listen sir”, he started, “my sister-in-law, who lives alone with her three children, had been receiving prank calls lately and she believe that someone from your number have been harassing her daughter”, he paused to catch his breath.
I had an idea what to expect next: a reference to some high level official preferably from the DMG, followed by threats and the main course consisting of words defying every rule in the incest code book.
My mind was busy bringing its own big guns at the launching pad while I waited for him to continue. “There is a young man I have been told who uses this number to call at my brother’s”; the man informed me, “and I would appreciate if you could sort this matter out yourself”.
He was very polite. Must be a novice, I thought, and was disappointed at being denied to test my vocabulary of four, five and multiple syllable words.
“Excuse me sir, but there is no young man living here, only me and I am definitely not that young to be harassing a thirteen-year-old girl. I only come here on the weekends, and I suspect that someone is hacking my number”.
I could hear the man sigh with relief. After all he was just doing a favor for his brother’s wife, and would not like to ruin his weekend simply because some teenager’s hormones were acting up. It was my turn to be worried.
If I was not the one calling the young woman, then who else could be calling; there were no young men in my household capable of undertaking such an adventure! Someone is definitely squandering my phone.
It never occurred to me that the young girl’s mother could have given the man a wrong number, instead I was convinced of a foul play.
“Sir”, I said earnestly, “I can assure no one from this house is calling your sister-in-law’s house, and I would appreciate if you could file a complaint with the telephone department, as I would be leaving on Sunday and would not have the time to do so. I am sure they will apprehend the culprit”.
I patiently waited for it to sink in, and as I had suspected, he took the bait instantly. Not only had I the man convinced that he was calling the wrong house, but had him commit kind enough to call the telephone department, which I should be doing in the first place, after all it was my number. But then I opted for the easier way out: let someone else do your job.
I hung up the phone smiling accepting his apologies with grace. I looked at my wristwatch I had two hours to spare enough to tidy up myself for the concert.
The word concert had been bothering me ever since I had bought the tickets. Ghazals and concert does not go hand in hand. Sham-e-Ghazal seemed more appropriate, but at the same time sounded trite, so I gave up the idea of inventing a suitable word for it and instead headed towards my bedroom.
Lahore was still a bit cold, and I had to shut the window. I inspected my self in the mirror and was less than satisfied at what I saw the landscape above my forehead still showed a few barren spots, despite my all my efforts. There was a little I could do to reclaim the lost glory so I decided to get myself in the mood for the evening.
I was still at the first stage, when I heard the phone ring again; my wrist watch told me that my friend was not due for another hour and a half, and then I recalled what I had suggested to the man on the phone a while ago. He was quick, I thought as I proceeded towards my living room to answer the phone.
“Hello”, a female voice buzzed in my ear as I picked up the phone. She hesitated for a moment, and I said to myself, there it goes: I expected her to inform me that a complaint has been lodged against me and that my phone would be disconnected if it were repeated.
Instead, what I heard was totally unexpected: the mother of the daughter being harassed by the young man supposedly living at my house was on the phone. She was worried, and just wanted to make sure that her brother-in-law had called earlier.
So that was why the gentleman was in such a hurry to get off the phone, I thought. “Yes he did indeed”, I heard myself say. And as I had explained to him earlier,
I informed the lady that none else lives there besides yours truly and that too on the weekends only. Her Urdu was elementary and English deliberate. Husband or no husband, I had no intention of carrying with the conversation with mother of three children.
She on the other hand was not ready to let it go, presumably because she was a worried mother of a teenage daughter and not her uncle. I was getting desperate; some refurbishing was required but the lady was adamant.
“Where do you work?” She asked me. I wished I could say “hell” but I meekly stated the name of the town. There was a long pause. “Ahsan is that you?” I heard her say at the other end.
I was shocked to hear my name, have they started giving out the names of the subscribers with the phone numbers on CLI; I cursed myself for living in the boondocks. “Yes this is Ahsan”, I replied, placing myself on the easy chair next to the phone. Something told me that it was the beginning and not the end.
“I am Beena, she shouted. I knew a girl by that nickname, as a matter of fact, that was an understatement, and I was madly in love with a girl by that, or so I believed at the time. But that was a long time ago, it could not be the same Beena. That cannot be, I asked myself: “yes, what, when, who, Beena is this really you? how did you know it was me?”, was all I could manage to say.
I was babbling and was acutely aware of that, but then my mind simply did not respond, and the babble ended with an extended sigh. She on the other hand was unmoved, “only an idiot like you would work at a place like that, in case you are wondering how I knew who you were”, she giggled. I could not believe what I had just heard. I felt a sudden urge to go to my bedroom; I needed that!
“Can I call you back”, I asked her a stupid question, and realizing that I don’t have her number, I quickly added, “I mean can you call me back in five minutes?”
“OK”, she replied, “five minutes”, she was visibly excited.
I hung up the phone and raced to my bedroom. I wish I could state the nature of the exigency, but prudence tells me not, may be in a different world and in different times,
I could explain what I had to do, but this is not the right time and not the right place to say the right thing. As Aristotle had said, “getting angry is easy, but getting angry at the right time, at the right person, for the right reason, and in right way is extremely difficult”,
I guess saying the right things at the right time could easily be the second most difficult thing to do. Notwithstanding philosophy, I was faced with a real life dilemma: what could I possibly say to an ex-fiancée’ who had decided to dump me in favor of one of my classmates.
She was to call me in five minutes and I had absolutely no idea what to say to her. I was not angry; an extended soul searching bore the same results: I was never angry with her, and at times, I had even doubted my “love” for her. I could however pretend that I was angry, but then I am inept in that art.
I knew that my classmate, her husband, was a loser, which was a beginning. I also knew that she was the one wearing the pants in the family, so to speak, being the breadwinner, that could help, but I still could not pump enough adrenaline in my system enabling me to tell her all that.
I had barely finished what I had started, when the phone rang again. I quickly ran it down my throat helped myself with another and coolly proceeded towards the living room to answer the phone.
“Hello”, I said in a calmly, “Ahsan”, she said. “I am sorry; who did you say you were?” I was not prepared to give her any room: let the games begin.
“Beena”, she replied, the exuberance was not there anymore.
My heart missed a beat or two; the trick is however not to let the other party see you perspire.
“Oh really”, I said, “is this a coincidence or what?”
I was beginning to enjoy that. There was a pause, which allowed me to wander down the memory lane. I had known that our engagement was over when I announced my intentions to go to States for higher education. She resisted the idea on grounds of out of sight out of mind. I was not to be dissuaded.
There was no formal announcement of break up, but I could feel it coming, and when it finally came, I was simply hurt. Not so much because she had betrayed me, but simply because out of all the people in world she could have married, she had chosen to marry one of my childhood friends. And I thought such things only happen in Jackie Collins novels. It took me a few days to get over it; distances could be a blessing at times.
“Hello, Hello, Ahsan are you still there?” she sounded a bit alarmed,
“Yes, I am still here”, I replied.
Human beings are such wonderful creatures and human mind is such a magnificent piece of machinery, in a matter of seconds I traveled thousands of miles and was able to recreate an event that had had been gathering dust in my mental library for decades.
Allah be praised! “Yes I am here, so what have you been doing all these years?” that was a rhetorical question, and she knew that as well.
“So your husband has decided to try his luck in the land of opportunity”, I did not make any effort to conceal my contempt. “How come you allowed him to go?”
I was on a roll. That was a little too sudden for her and I could feel that I had won the first round, so I went for the kill. “How could you possibly trust a middle aged man remaining loyal to his family when you could not trust a boy who obeyed your wish of nahin abhi nahin for four years!” It was cruel on my part, I realized it, but realization alone cannot undo the harm done.
“Oh, Ahsan, how could you”, she said, and then she started crying. Out of all the things in the world, the saline liquid running down a female cheek is the singular most effective coolant to bring the temperature down in my upper chamber.
And, it worked! I quickly apologized for my impoliteness. She would however not budge. The crying continued, coupled with brief pauses of nose blowing. I sat there helplessly staring at the wall not knowing what to do.
“I said I am sorry”, I feigned to be annoyed, but it further ignited the fire, and the controlled crying turned into full scale bawling. I was about to declare myself the most stupid person in the world, when I realized that I had every reason to be cheeky. After all, I was the victim.
“Listen, Beena, I think we need to start it all over, why don’t you give me a call some other time. I am here for the weekend”. I gave her my cellular number, without waiting for her acknowledgement, hung up the phone, and raced to my bedroom. First things, first!
The concert was refreshing as expected, followed by an early breakfast which was equally refreshing, and by the time I got home I had forgotten all about Beena and her tears.
I was asleep as soon as I hit the bed. One would like to have a long and peaceful sleep after such an exciting evening and that is exactly what I had in my mind,
However as it turned out I had a rather rude awakening. The ringing of phone is probably the most effective getter-upper in the world. It took me about a minute to find the phone and my “hello” was more of a bark than an invitation for conversation.
It was the same woman again; I looked at the watch, it was half-past ten in the morning, no reason for me to be annoyed. Normal people are up and running at that time of the morning.
“Yes, how can I help you?”
“I got to see you”, she replied.
“Say what?” I could not believe my ears; the man inside me started drooling at the possibilities.
“Yes, I got to see you, Can you pick me up at noon, at the usual spot?” she stated in a matter of fact manner.
“Yippee!” my heart jumped with joy.
“OK”, I said, “I’ll be there”, and hung up the phone.
It was just like the good old days, except that I had to shave twice to get rid of the protruding gray stubble under the chin. Rest was easy, the cologne, the after shave and the jeans and a tee shirt.
It was a sunny and pleasant morning; a cool breeze welcomed me as I exited my house. It’s going to be a good day, I thought starting my car. The engine came alive with a purr; even that sounded good.
It took me a while to choose the cassette; everything had to be perfect, no loose ends. The spot where I had to pick her up was about a mile and half from my place.
It took me about five minutes to reach there. I parked my car facing the canal and turned the air conditioner on; I was early and did not want to step outside, as the wind blowing outside could definitely play havoc with my carefully arranged hair do.
The view from the car was perfect; water flowing in the channel in complete harmony; aged trees lined up along the canal looked somber, however the younger of the lot were restless and swayed back and forth apparently enjoying the spring breeze. Cars moved slowly but surely and there were hardly any pedestrians in sight. Lahore was still having its breakfast in bed!
The view from the rear view mirror was equally pleasant. The Campus Bridge was empty and I could watch the approaching traffic unobstructed. A van pulled up behind my car, released a couple of passengers from its middle, and rushed away. She was no where in sight.
And then I saw a rickshaw racing down the road, and I knew it was carrying her. I put the car in gear, just in case I was right, and surely, I was right. She peeped through the rickshaw’s door and it started slowing down.
The car moved forward, and I saw her step out of the rickshaw. She paid the driver and hurried towards the car. A moment later she was next to me; perspiring, flushed and definitely scared. Twenty years of separation had finally come to an end!
“Let’s go”, she pleaded.
“Hello”, I said, “you look wonderful”.
“Can we please go”, she was getting impatient.
“Ok, as you wish”, and we were in motion.
“Why are you perspiring”, I asked her as we crossed the speed barrier.
“Why do you think?” she snorted, “And is there any way you can move this piece of junk a little faster”.
“Not with all these barriers ahead”, I smiled at her.
“For God sake, move it, Ahsan, I don’t want to be seen like this”, and she covered her face with her starched dupatta.
I wanted to say something, but decided otherwise. The restraint was out of necessity and not courtesy: let’s not spoil the things from the outset, I thought.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. She was a bit relaxed as I unlocked the main door and escorted her in.
“Water, can I get some water”, she asked,
“There is some in the fridge”, I replied pointing my finger towards the kitchen. She went to get the water, allowing me some time to take a stock of things. I was unmoved that she was here, not even a stir or a murmur.
My inside was frigid. That was encouraging, at least I would not be taken for granted this time around. Why I had brought her here, I asked myself? For obvious reason: to re-claim what was once rightly mine.
She stood by the door, holding the glass of water in her hand, with an amused look on her face. She looked relaxed.
“Come sit beside me”, I motioned towards the vacant chair next to mine.
“I am Ok here”, she said settling herself on the couch farthest from where I sat. That was a bit odd, I thought.
“Ok”, I said in a reassuring manner. She looked much older than I had expected and had a firm expression on her face. I had seen similar expressions on faces of a number of working women who had to deal with uncomfortable situations on a regular basis.
The man behind the calm face was in discomfort. The woman however continued with her examination of the man she once knew. “You look like your father”, she broke the silence,
“And you like your mother”, I replied.
“So tell me what had you been doing all these years”, her gaze was taxing my conscience.
“Nothing much you know, working, I guess. And you”, I asked.
“Nothing much” she replied, “husbanding, mothering and working.”
“So how come you wanted to see me?” I asked.
“Well, I need your help, and I knew I could count on you, she said in a matter of fact way. “To get a divorce, I hope”, I prayed silently. It was getting better. She sat there motionless, expressionless and unmoved.
“Why did she have to come here simply looking for help, especially after last night, why could not she had asked me over the phone, and what kind of help is she looking for?” the questions swarmed my mind.
The monster was still not sure.
“Will you help me?” she said calmly, and without waiting for an answer, she continued, “I need ten thousand rupees for my daughter’s admission in an all girls’ school and I am short of cash”.
“Daughter?”, I repeated after her, and then it struck me that the woman sitting there was not there to rekindle her long lost love, neither was she there looking for extra-marital affair now that her husband was away, instead she was there to tend to her family’s needs.
Women! I sighed and the monster tossing and turning in agony took its last breath. My vision cleared suddenly, and I could clearly see the deep furrows fording her forehead, her sweaty palms which she kept on rubbing against her thighs, and a hint of fear at being turned down in her eyes. A mother sat there and waiting for my reply.
“Tell me honestly, Beena, did you know who I was, when you called me last night?” She looked at me and said nothing, but her eyes said it what her tongue could not deliver.
And I decided to drop the subject then and there.
“Wait here and I will write you a check”, I got up and to get the check. The last fifteen minutes that we spent after I had handed over the check were simply perfunctory.
She thanked me. I said nothing. She promised to return the money as soon as she got the check from States, I said don’t bother. She asked me about a number of questions, and I replied mechanically. We both knew that we were going through the motions, and would probably not see each other again, at least not in the near future.
Neither of us wanted that. I offered to drop her home; she declined. She would take a rickshaw. I saw her off at the main gate, and walked back inside. Women, a smile that had evaded me for the last hour or so finally made its appearance; I was free once again.
This short story was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2003).
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